Navy Times - April 19, 2012, By Deborah Barfield Berry, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Sen. Roger Wicker told Navy officials Thursday he's concerned about how cuts in defense spending will affect the shipbuilding industry, which is key to Mississippi’s economy.
“It’s irresponsible to think we can lay off skilled workers — engineers for example — and expect them to be available when future contracts are awarded,” Wicker said at a hearing on the Navy’s shipbuilding programs.
Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower, questioned Navy officials about their shipbuilding program and fiscal 2013 budget request.
The Navy wants to spend $13.7 billion on its shipbuilding program, which includes building 10 ships. One could be built in Mississippi and two would be built in Alabama.
Gulf Coast lawmakers have already raised concerns about the regional impact of $487 billion in defense spending cuts that Congress approved last year in a compromise deal to increase the nation’s debt limit.
The agreement under the Budget Control Act also requires about $1 trillion in cuts over the next nine years unless Congress can come up with a plan to reduce the debt by that amount. Those automatic cuts were triggered by a process called sequestration, after a congressional “supercommittee” failed last year to come up with a plan to cut the same amount.
Half of the cuts under sequestration — about $500 billion — would come from the defense budget.
“The Navy faces significant budget challenges ahead,” Wicker said. “I’m not absolutely convinced that we won’t face this. It is indeed disappointing.”
Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions said he’s also concerned about the automatic spending cuts.
“We need to be taking some real action to fix it,” he said.
Navy officials said they haven’t yet had formal guidance on the possible cuts, but warned they would be devastating.
“You cannot take the force and the operation that we have in place today ... and try to imagine continuing that with another half-a-trillion reduction to our defense program,” said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. “It’s a significant shift.”
The automatic cuts mandated under sequestration, combined with the other $487 billion in cuts, would lead to a radically different military, said Vice Admiral John Blake, deputy chief of Naval Operations, Integration of Capabilities and Resources.
Wicker said he voted for the Budget Control Act “believing in my heart that we would have the leadership in the city” to cut spending where most necessary.
“We’ve either not had the leadership or the will,” he said. “It’s unthinkable that we would get to this brinksmanship.”
Wicker said he’s worried about the impact of job reductions in the shipbuilding industry. He also questioned whether the Navy plans to build enough ships to keep the nation’s six major shipyards in business.
The Navy has 286 ships now and plans to increase that to 300. Since December 2010, it has awarded contracts to procure 38 ships, Stackley said.
“These contracts provide an important degree of certainty to our industrial base in an otherwise uncertain period in defense spending,” he said. “We recognize, however, that it is not possible to simply buy our way to recapitalizing our force. We must focus relentlessly on improving affordability in our shipbuilding programs.”
Navy officials said there will be enough work over the next five years to keep shipyards busy and competitive.
“There are peaks and valleys that we do have to manage,” said Vice Admiral Kevin M. McCoy, commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command.
McCoy said some companies may also be busy repairing ships.
“We are constantly looking across the industrial base,” he said.
The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.